With surprises and scares, Fede Alvarez's thriller keeps everyone but The Blind Man unnerved.
Sometimes the best things are the simplest things. The new thriller Don’t Breathe masterfully wrings every ounce of tension from its simple home-invasion premise. Director Fede Alvarez pins his characters into tighter and tighter corners, even as the action is spinning out of control. The result is a nerve-wracking rollercoaster ride that never turns in the direction you’re expecting. Don’t Breathe is the kind of white-knuckle thriller that adrenaline junkies are craving.
Imagine if the thugs from Panic Room (2002) broke into Jodie Foster’s house and found her whacked-out uncle waiting for them in his underwear. That’s kind of what happens to the three junior criminals in Don’t Breathe, only the whacked-out uncle is a blind Iraq War veteran with some serious privacy issues.
Rocky (Jane Levy), her boyfriend Money (Daniel Zovatto), and her wannabe boyfriend Alex (Dylan Minnette) are small-time crooks running a home invasion scam in suburban Detroit. Alex’s dad owns a home security firm, which gives him insider access to keys and codes. It’s unlikely his dad would stay in business for very long with his clients getting robbed all the time, but the rules of commerce aren’t really a concern for director Fede Alvarez (Evil Dead ).
Alex institutes a few ironclad rules to avoid any possible felony charges: No guns, no cash, and never steal more than $10k worth of merchandise. This conservative approach to larceny puts Alex at odds with Rocky and Money, who have sunshine-soaked dreams of retiring to California. Their philosophical differences come to a head when Money learns about an Iraq War veteran (Stephen Lang), blinded by a mortar fire, who is sitting on a $300k cash settlement from the wrongful death of his young daughter. Swayed by Rocky’s pleas for a better life, Alex agrees to come along for this ‘last big score’.
Of course, the last big score never goes according to plan, and the crew quickly find themselves in a boarded-up house with no easy means of escape. This veteran may be blind, but he knows every inch of his house and he has the weapons and the training to protect it. He also has a few secrets that are far more valuable to him than a stack of cash. It’s a morally queasy set-up where none of the characters are irredeemably bad or squeaky clean; their flaws simply bring them together for one fateful night of terror.
Don’t Breathe is an exercise in restraint and release. Director Alvarez knows you can get a cheap jump scare from an unexpected gunshot, but it’s the anticipation of the gunshot that makes you squirm. Add the extra dimension of the villain’s blindness and you have no idea when or from what direction the danger might erupt. He wheels and pivots around the room, wildly pointing his gun at each character as they try to conceal their position. All the while, Alvarez maintains a strict silence. The only sound you hear is the gunman sniffing the air like some demented dog trying to detect its target’s scent.
It may seem like a mismatch to have three young hooligans challenge a blind man, but this blind man is deadly smart and hopped up on crazy. It makes him a decidedly unpredictable adversary, which filters into every aspect of Alvarez and Rodo Sayagues’ ingenious script. Misdirection and faulty assumptions are used against the audience time and time again. You think you understand what’s happening and why, but you only know the half of it.
The other half is concealed by darkness. One bravura sequence in the pitch-black basement uses night-vision to show how perilously close each oblivious character is standing to certain death. The world of sight may belong to the kids, but the “villain” neutralizes their advantage in countlessly inventive ways.
Almost everything wonderful about Don’t Breathe emanates from Alvarez’s impeccable direction. It’s almost inconceivable that this is his follow-up to the dreadfully dull 2013 re-make of Evil Dead. Here, he keeps his camera fluid to give this chamber of horrors a dynamic sense of space. Each character is manipulated into tighter and tighter corners until the tension is ratcheted to almost unbearable levels. Alvarez also keeps his characters smart throughout. There are very few instances when someone does something irretrievably stupid, unless, of course, you count robbing a psychotic blind man in the first place.
The young cast does a good job, with Jane Levy proving particularly capable. Looking every bit like a young Reese Witherspoon, Levy exudes enough genuine charisma and humanity to suggest she might yet escape the “scream queen” niche. Lang is a force of nature as The Blind Man (his credited name). His madness comes from a deeper place, where his hopes and dreams were unfairly snatched away. The cast also features the craziest dog in film since 1983’s Cujo!
Don’t Breathe is that rare gem that will appeal to fans of both the horror and thriller genres. It’s not a particularly bloody affair, and you’re more likely to hold your breath than to scream, but there are enough surprises and scares to keep everyone uncomfortable, and that’s a very good thing.